May 18, 2012

Wu Xia

Forensics meet fu in Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s Wu Xia, my favorite martial arts film of the last year. In a premise that somewhat recalls History of Violence, modest paper maker Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) tangles with and dispatches a pair of dangerous thugs who descend on his rural village. Detective Xu Baiju (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a hyper-rationalist laden with the emotional and physical damage of a mistaken act of clemency performed early in his career, realizes that Jinxi’s story doesn't hold up. Applying his knowledge of physics and Chinese medicine to the crime scene, he comes to suspect that Jinxi is a powerful master of qi energy. And if he is that, the Imperial law enforcement system isn’t the only an organization who might want to know about him and his new family...

Set in 1917 but with nary a firearm in sight, Wu Xia executes a gorgeously-shot slow burn before escalating into a satisfyingly emotional fu epic. CGI effects appear, but only to add grace notes to physically performed stunt sequences. The CSI-style forensic recreations, based on Eastern instead of Western anatomic principles, show us what Xu Baiju is thinking as he peels the deceptions away from Jinxi’s story. Yen delivers a career highlight performance, as a man who has discovered his real identity but still has vestiges of another one moving below the surface. Kaneshiro undercuts his matinee idol status as a man with a brilliant mind trapped in a weakened body. Jimmy Wang Yu, classic star of the Shaw Brothers era (One-Armed Swordsman), makes his first film appearance in eighteen years as a climactic heavy as rife with pathos as he is with menace. And he can still fight!

Two equally generic English titles, Dragon and Swordsman, have attached themselves to the film, suggesting that someone at some point was hoping for a North American release. Snag it wherever you stock up on Hong Kong home video imports.